Like this year's presidential election, the race for the governorship of North Carolina is pitting an incumbent against an experienced challenger. Voters are being compelled to choose between the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "Time for a breath of fresh air" mentalities.
But they should concentrate on Easley's record and on certain realities that both this state and the whole nation have faced. If they do so, they will find that Easley's choices have helped North Carolina to rise out of the recession that took hold of the country at the beginning of the century.
Keeping the state afloat
Of the two candidates, only Easley has clearly displayed an ability to keep the state's bottom line in black ink.
In tending the state's budget during the last four years, supporters and critics alike have acknowledged Easley's willingness to cut - even when it might be politically risky to do so.
In March, the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank that deals with state economic affairs, issued a press release that, while criticizing Easley's spending record, saved a significant amount of space to compliment his adoption of cost-cutting measures.
John Hood, the organization's president, stated in the release that the governor "has shown an increasing willingness to entertain good ideas for streamlining government and reducing wasteful spending in many areas."
Easley might not be fiscally conservative enough for some voters - but the decisions he's made in balancing North Carolina's budget have been politically tough, and they certainly bear the mark of a disciplined leader.
In 2002, the state faced a budget deficit of $1.5 billion dollars. Through a combination of cuts and temporary tax increases, Easley has overseen the creation of improved budgets every year since. The outlook for 2004-05 finally shows a balance between revenue and spending.
Easley is simply the candidate that North Carolinians can rely on to ensure a healthy financial future for their state.
Compared to Ballantine - who has presented risky proposals to cut taxes while streamlining state government - Easley represents a model of stability that North Carolina needs as it continues to crawl out of tough economic times.
Sound policies for students
The cuts made to the UNC system during Easley's tenure haven't been easy to swallow, but there is no questioning their necessity. UNC-Chapel Hill administrators have gone out of their way to praise efforts of state legislators for their work to keep losses at a minimum.
UNC-CH Provost Robert Shelton told The Daily Tar Heel in March that it's unfortunate that the UNC-system's budget had to be cut again this year. "The legislature has worked hard to protect us, but the state just doesn't have the money," he said.
Easley has developed policies that have been supportive of the state's students. His zero-increase tuition policy for students hasn't worked perfectly in the past, but with an improving economic situation and a state budget not in jeopardy of large deficits, it's a promise that would do a great deal to relieve students coming off of consecutive years of tuition increases.
Each candidate has set goals that carry a considerable amount of risk. Easley has made the creation of a state lottery to fund education one of the most prominent planks of his platform. It's a strong idea that Ballantine opposes.
By instituting a lottery, the state effectively would be sponsoring gambling. But that would be nothing new - other states have taken this step, and their programs and services have benefited from it.
Critics might argue that a lottery basically would be a tax on the poor, as wealthier people would be less inclined to play. But ultimately, participation in a lottery would be voluntary.
State lawmakers should act soon, as people are crossing North Carolina's border and putting money into other states' treasuries by trying their luck at the numbers.
If N.C. officials are worth their salt, they would find the best way to ensure that lottery revenue would be used wisely. North Carolina's education system needs more money, and a lottery is an intriguing proposal to generate more revenue.
It's true that many state legislators have rejected the idea of a lottery. But that doesn't mean that it isn't a good idea - and at the very least, the issue should go before the voters in the near future.
Why not Ballantine?
The former state senator's generalized proposals look nice on paper, but he hasn't done a good enough job of going into detail and proving that they would work in practice.
By going Ballantine's way, North Carolinians would be walking a tightrope. They might reach a period of prosperity. But they also could come to a decidedly worse fate.
Ballantine would offset the loss of money through his tax cuts in part by reorganizing state government - in other words, by eliminating bureaucratic positions that he finds to be unnecessary - and by cutting wasteful spending priorities.
"Wasteful" is a subjective term. A program that some lawmakers might deem "wasteful" might actually be quite useful to the people who actually take advantage of it.
Some spending undoubtedly can be curbed, but it seems highly unlikely that Ballantine could pay for his tax cuts without getting rid of a number of posts, programs and services that are vital to North Carolinians.
Would it be worth replacing an incumbent - one who has shown that he can adapt to tough economic times, maintain a balanced budget and sustain a real commitment to N.C. jobs - with someone whose proposals aren't sure to send the state either forward or backward?
No, it wouldn't.
North Carolinians might find fault with the actions of the Easley administration during the past four years. Many voters undoubtedly disagree with his strict views on law and order.
His opposition to a state moratorium on the death penalty is unfortunate. The relevance of a moratorium has become increasingly apparent. In the case of Alan Gell, for example, an innocent man was scheduled to die at the hands of the state before his case was reviewed and he was found to be innocent.
Neither Easley nor Ballantine has done anything to take up the moratorium cause. They both have criticized the idea as an underhanded attempt to ban the death penalty. They should reconsider their stances.
But that doesn't keep Easley from being the clear choice in this election. Voters should ask themselves what another governor in Easley's place could have done to make things significantly better, given the circumstances. The state's financial situation has been improving, as state legislators recently have enjoyed more budget flexibility.
Voters should stay the course.
They should re-elect Mike Easley.